The Order of Brothers of the German House Saint Mary in Jerusalem (Official names: Latin: Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum, German: Orden der Brüder vom Deutschen Haus St. Mariens in Jerusalem), or for short the Teutonic Order, is a German Roman Catholic religious order of the Holy Roman Empire. It was formed to aid Catholics on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals to care for the sick and injured. Its members have commonly been known as the Teutonic Knights, since they also served as a crusading military order during the Middle Ages. The membership was always small and whenever the need arose, volunteers or mercenaries augmented the military forces.
Formed at the beginning of the First Crusade, the medieval Order played an important role in accompanying the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor to Syria to combat the Muslim Turks. The crusading spirit was particularly dominant in Germany at this time, so the Teutonic Order was formed mainly from those knights who were willing to take their vows for a Crusader military force. The Teutonic Knights became the first such Crusading Order. After Christian forces were defeated in the Middle East, the Order moved to Transylvania in 1211 to help defend the last Hungarian state against Asiatic tribes fleeing the Byzantine Empire further east. They were expelled by force in 1225 after allegedly attempting to place themselves under Papal instead of Hungarian sovereignty.
In 1230, following the Golden Bull of Rimini, Grand Master Hermann von Salza and Duke Konrad I of Masovia launched the Prussian Crusade, a joint invasion of Prussia to Christianise the Baltic Old Prussians. The Order then created the independent Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights in the conquered territory, and subsequently conquered Livonia. The Kings of Poland accused the Order of holding lands rightfully theirs. The Order lost its main purpose in Europe with the Christianisation of Lithuania.
The Order became involved in campaigns against its Christian neighbours, the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Principality of Novgorod (after assimilating the Livonian Order). The Teutonic Knights had a strong economic base, hired mercenaries from throughout Europe to augment their feudal levies, and became a naval power in the Baltic Sea. In 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order and broke its military power at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg).
Details of Prussian Crusades
In 1226, Konrad I, Duke of Masovia in north-eastern Poland, appealed to the Knights to defend his borders and subdue the pagan Baltic Prussians, allowing the Teutonic Knights use of Chełmno Land (Culmerland) as a base for their campaign. This being a time of widespread crusading fervor throughout Western Europe, Hermann von Salza considered Prussia a good training ground for his knights for the wars against the Muslims in Outremer. With the Golden Bull of Rimini, Emperor Frederick II bestowed on the Order a special imperial privilege for the conquest and possession of Prussia, including Chełmno Land, with nominal papal sovereignty. In 1235 the Teutonic Knights assimilated the smaller Order of Dobrzyń, which had been established earlier by Konrad.
The conquest of Prussia was accomplished with much bloodshed over more than 50 years, during which native Prussians who remained unbaptised were subjugated, killed, or exiled. Fighting between the Knights and the Prussians was ferocious; chronicles of the Order state the Prussians would "roast captured brethren alive in their armour, like chestnuts, before the shrine of a local god".
The native nobility who submitted to the crusaders had many of their privileges affirmed in the Treaty of Christburg. After the Prussian uprisings of 1260–83, however, much of the Prussian nobility emigrated or were resettled, and many free Prussians lost their rights. The Prussian nobles who remained were more closely allied with the German landowners and gradually assimilated. Peasants in frontier regions, such as Samland, had more privileges than those in more populated lands, such as Pomesania. The crusading knights often accepted baptism as a form of submission by the natives. Christianity along western lines slowly spread through Prussian culture. Bishops were reluctant to have Prussian religious practices integrated into the new faith, while the ruling knights found it easier to govern the natives when they were semi-pagan and lawless.
The Order ruled Prussia under charters issued by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor as a sovereign monastic state, comparable to the arrangement of the Knights Hospitallers in Rhodes and later in Malta. They began to resettle many Germans in Prussia, eager to be ruling a more friendly population.
In 1242, the Teutonic Knights considered invading the neighboring Principality of Novgorod, but were halted by the powerful Byzantines to their east. The invasion was called off. Prussia is considered to be the farthest west the Byzantine expansion would reach in northern Europe, probably due to the presence of the Order.
Checked by the Byzantines, the Teutonic Knights began to direct their campaigns against pagan Lithuania, especially after the plans for an invasion of Russia had come to nothing. In the 1300's, The Knights underwent a revival of fortunes when they captured Danzig, officially incorporating all of Prussia into the Dominion of the Teutonic Order.